Please don't ask me to recommend a long-running show. I'm not kidding. This may seem like a simple question, but it is one that kicks off an ugly argument between different sides of my brain.
Am I recommending the show I saw when it opened? How many cast changes - major and minor - have been made since the last time I saw it? Was it staged by the sort of director who fluffs up the feathers for the opening, then vanishes in pursuit of the next new thing? How much do the show's producers care about maintaining the freshness and integrity beyond the initial excitement and reviews? Do the people in charge of maintenance remember what anyone loved about it in the first place? Or is it enough to plaster a reality-TV celebrity onto some old hit machine and hope the tourists don't know what they don't know?
In other words, I am loath to recommend anything that I haven't seen for six months. Movies, TV episodes, books, recordings - they are what they were and, for better and worse, will stay that way. Ah, but theater changes - not just from year to year but, depending on the discipline and/or the questing nature of the cast, perhaps from night to night.
I finally revisited "South Pacific" and "In the Heights" recently - two Tony Award-winning shows I hadn't seen since their splendid openings in the spring of 2008. The news is good at both.
SOUTH PACIFIC (Lincoln Center Theater, closing in late August). Bartlett Sher's dark and magnificent revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1949 classic is very much intact, including the luxurious 30-piece orchestra that puts Broadway reductions to shame. There has been remarkable stability in the company, especially the meticulous singing and dancing chorus, which captures all the sweep and emotional intimacy of this story of deep love and deep bigotry in World War II America.
Laura Osnes (from the reality-TV cast "Grease") is pleasant and more than competent as Nellie Forbush, but I'm afraid I can't pretend that she compares with the deliciously compelling Kelli O'Hara. David Pittsinger, who steps in as Emile de Becque whenever Paulo Szot is elsewhere, has a gorgeous dark bass-baritone if more of an operatic acting style than the dashing Szot (who made his Metropolitan Opera debut Friday in Shostakovich's "The Nose" but returns March 30).
Much of the supporting cast has been there from the start - including Loretta Ables Sayre as the Brecht-tough Bloody Mary and Danny Burstein as Luther Billis, lovable scamp and war profiteer. I asked Burstein how he keeps from going on automatic pilot after all this time. "It might sound trite," he says, "but it helps that I really love this show and these producers. The key is listening. I have a terrible fear of getting stale, but I keep discovering new things, correcting certain moments to make myself happy."
He says he had no idea, during rehearsals, that this revival would be so special. "I was in this show when I was 17 and the chorus was played as happy villagers. But Bart had such a different take on things, he wanted to make this as realistic as possible. I remember once passing him in the hall and he looked so downtrodden. I asked 'What's the matter?' He said "Happy Talk" is the saddest song every written for the musical theater.' You know, he was right."
IN THE HEIGHTS (Richard Rodgers Theatre). There are many more changes at this Tony-winning musical, but it remains an upbeat sweetheart and power surge of an urban folk tale about changing community in the mixed Latino grab bag in Washington Heights. Again, it is impossible not to miss the dynamic Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created, composed and starred in Broadway's first Latino musical made by Latinos. But Corbin Bleu - yes, the heartthrob from "High School Musical" in his Broadway debut - has an enormous sweetness and charisma as the poetic rapper who runs the bodega.
Many of the major roles have been recast, mostly with big talents who are strikingly different from the originals. This is not an accident. Director Thomas Kail says "We very consciously tried not to 'replace' anybody, but to find each actor's essential quality. That way, we get an infusion of new energy. If a role shifts, they all have to stay on their toes." As for Miranda, Kail jokes, "Lin is certainly around. He comes to auditions, sees the tours - you know, any excuse to hang out" with his baby. The care shows.
Critics tend not to revisit shows enough. Guilty as charged. Still, I am fascinated by ideas that producers dream up to keep their hits fresh, or at least keep them in the news.
Right now, two of last year's Tony winners are ramping up the changes in ways that, if successful, will reinvent just enough of yesterday's magic to bring back repeat customers with the new ones.
Last Tuesday, "God of Carnage" introduced its third new cast to Yasmina Reza's four-character Tony-winning comedy. The first cast was so extraordinary (James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels) that most critics re-reviewed their replacements (Christine Lahti and Jimmy Smits led a less remarkable group). The new cast is also enticing (Dylan Baker, Lucy Liu, Tony-winning Janet McTeer). What just might bring us all back, however, is the chance to see Jeff Daniels return, this time to play Gandolfini's character.
"Hair," which sent its entire tribe to London, turned a daunting complete turnover into a national media event by holding open auditions for nonprofessionals. I don't know how many newcomers, if any, got their big break from the smart gimmick. What we do know is that, on Tuesday, two niche-driven household names from "American Idol" will begin in starring roles - Diana DeGarmo (runner up in season three) is Sheila, and Ace Young (seventh place in season five) will be Berger. Oh, well ... that's show biz.